Lactose is a type of natural sugar found in milk and milk products. When body is unable to digest lactose due to lack of or low level of lactase secretion it is called as lactose intolerance.
The cells in the lining of small intestine produce an enzyme called lactase. Lactase combines with lactose molecules and breaks it into glucose and galactose which is then absorbed in blood stream.
When lactase production is reduced or absent, undigested lactose passes through colon, where bacteria interact with it and cause distressing symptoms.
Causes of Lactose Intolerance
- Sometimes as we age our body produces less lactase.
- Small intestine may produce less lactase after certain illness or surgery of small intestine. Diseases like gastroenteritis, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease may cause secondary lactose intolerance.
- Some babies are born with congenital lactose intolerance. This condition is passed on to next generation by inheritance by defective gene of the parents. This is rare disorder.
- Lactose intolerance is commonly seen in Asian, American Indians and Hispanic people.
- Babies who are born prematurely may have lactose intolerance due to reduced production of lactase. Lactase production increases in foetus in late third trimester.
- Radiotherapy when taken for abdominal cancer reduces lactase production.
Signs and Symptoms
- Symptoms appear after thirty minutes to two hours after ingestion of food containing lactose. Symptoms can be mild to severe.
- Patient will complain of gas, bloating of abdomen, cramps in abdomen. This may be associated with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Diagnosis is done on the basis of medical history. Tests like lactose tolerance test, hydrogen breath test and stool acidity test is done to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment for Lactose Intolerance
- If the symptoms are severe then avoid milk and milk products completely for few days. Later you can take milk or milk product in small quantity and see the effects of it.
- Include food items like soya milk, tofu, canned salmon, broccoli, spinach to meet your calcium requirements.
- Include eggs, liver and yogurt in your diet. Some exposure to sun is advisable to get enough vitamin D. If necessary take calcium and vitamin D supplements after consulting your doctor.
- Some people can tolerate small quantity of milk and dairy products. Take small serving of dairy product. You can have it with your meal. This may help in getting fewer symptoms as digestion of milk product is slowed down.
- Cheddar cheese contains less amount of lactose hence it can be well tolerated.
- Yogurt contains enzyme which helps in breakdown of lactose. Hence one can include yogurt in diet instead of milk.
- Babies with lactose intolerance will require lactose free infant formula.
- Probiotics may help in digestion of lactose.
- Many cereals, soups and other readymade food may contain milk or lactose. Please check the label before buying such products.